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Nexus Nine Interviews

Nexus Nine Interviews: Apollo Okamura

This installment of our interview feature puts the spotlight on fan favorite Apollo Okamura. A long time Palladium freelancer, Apollo made his debut way back in 1998 in the very first issue of The Rifter! Since that time Apollo's art has become a staple of the games Palladium Books is famous for. As new opportunities open up for both Palladium and Apollo, we took our own opportunity to ask Apollo a few questions and give Palladium fans a peek at what makes this talented guy tick.

Nexus Nine: Thanks for granting us the opportunity to interview you for the site Apollo. Where are you from? Have you lived there all your life?

Apollo Okamura: I was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario. I have moved around a bit since, but always within the greater Toronto area.

N9: Some time ago you announced a new job opportunity at Sheridan College that you were taking advantage of. What exactly is it that you're doing now?

AO: I’m the new professor of digital tools and methodologies for the Bachelor of Applied Arts - Animation program at Sheridan College. Essentially, I’ll be responsible for teaching first-year would-be animators a multitude of software packages and their use and application to animation and the animation industry.

N9: How does that affect your freelance artist career?

AO: Alas, my freelance career is going to be going on a bit of a hiatus while I get settled into my new job. I am hoping that once the dust settles I’ll be able to find time to keep drawing freelance, even if at a limited capacity. I’ll just have to wait and see.

N9: Does that job give you any new perspective on how you see your freelance work, whether past projects or any projects down the line?

AO: Ooh, tough question! I’d have to say that I’ve always had one foot in the door when it comes to computer technology, in fact I’m pretty sure that’s what landed me the job at Sheridan. So, in that respect not much has changed. Although, being in a teaching position, I’m expected to know what I talking about, so there is even more pressure to push myself in whatever project I may be working on, which probably makes me even more critical of my own work, both past and future.

N9: What kind of materials do you use?

AO: For drawing I use Ticonderoga HB pencils, and both Prang kneaded erasers and Staedtler Mars Plastic erasers.
For inking I have a set of Pigma Micron Pens, a Pentel brush pen, #2 and #0 Winsor & Newton brushes, and of course India ink and white correction ink. I have tried crow quills, but they don’t like the cheap photo-copy paper I tend to use, go figure.
For my digital work I could not live without Adobe Photoshop and my Intuos 2 12"x12" Wacom tablet! I am hoping in the near future to pick up a Cintiq tablet - hey, one can dream, can’t they?
For my digital animation work I’ve been using Toon Boom Studio, but I’ve recently upgraded to Toon Boom Solo... now all I need is that Cintiq...
(Note: Links provided by N9 for reader's convenience)

N9: I remember you saying that you disliked inking. Do you have a favorite medium?

AO: Yeah, inking and I aren’t good friends. There’s just something permanent about inking that gets to me. Lately I’ve been heavily leaning towards the digital tablet for my artwork, it’s just so efficient and there’s so much you can do. But, as much as I love working digitally, I’ll always be a pencil guy, none of those fancy densities either, just plain old wood-on-the-outside, graphite-on-the-inside, HB pencils for me. There’s just something uniquely tactile and simple about putting a pencil to paper that no other medium can beat.

N9: How much research do you do for a project?

AO: A lot! Due to time constraints, I don’t always get as much reference material as I’d like, but I prefer to get pretty familiar with the subject matter even before I’ve put pencil to paper. The less I know about a particular subject the more research I’ll do. If it’s a creature of some sort, what’s its skeletal structure like? If it’s mechanical, how does it work? If it’s a character, what’s its personality like? It may seem like superfluous work, but it really shows in the final artwork when an artist knows what they’re drawing.

N9: Do you find it easier to have a free hand in designing a piece, or to work from a writer's description?

AO: It depends. For me, if I’m drawing a picture for someone else (which I often am), the more of a description I can get, the better, after all it’s their vision I’m trying to bring to life. When I do have a hand in designing a piece it’s usually the writer in me that has the artistic reigns, so I don’t know if that counts.

N9: How much time do you spend on a piece?

AO: It varies wildly depending on the art style, and complexity of the piece. I’ve cranked out finished pencil drawings in less than twenty minutes and spent a month or more on digital paintings. I’d have to say for the work I do for Palladium, one day is about the average from pencil, to ink, to digital tones.

N9: What, or whom, inspired you to become an artist? Do they have much influence on you today?

AO: Oddly, becoming an artist is something I just kinda’ fell into. Oh sure, I had a couple of comics by John Byrne and practically owned my library’s copies of Lee J. Ames’ How to Draw books, and How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema, and I’m a huge cartoon nut, but I never thought I’d be drawing as a career, it was something I did just for fun. It seemed like all of the sudden people wanted to actually pay me for my artwork, and next thing I know I’m doing this as a career. I’m still a little baffled. At least today I own my own copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and a slew of other art books.

N9: Did you have a mentor along the way that helped you out? Did you have any formal training along the way?

AO: Experience and practice were my biggest mentors getting into this business. Nothing like the school of hard knocks to teach you what works and what doesn’t. I did attend Sheridan College’s animation program, not so much to learn how to animate, but rather to hone my drawing skills. I figured drawing hundreds of pages of characters should help my drawing some. I found though that thinking of characters from an animator’s perspective gave my artwork a much stronger illusion of life. Course, I still have much to learn and ways to go, but I’ll get there eventually.

N9: Do you have any favorite artists? Any role models? RPG related or otherwise?

AO: Hate to give a round-about answer, but it depends on the medium. For example, Jim Lee can’t be beat when it comes to action-packed comics, and no one does fantasy paintings like Keith Parkinson! There’s so many great artists with such vast styles that fit perfectly for one thing or another that there’s no way I could pick just one.

N9: What are you working on right now?

AO: Hmm, don’t know how much info I can divulge since Palladium’s still finalising the licensing details. Okay, yeah, you probably guessed it already... I’ve unofficially started artwork for the Robotech: Shadow Chronicles Role-Playing Game. There’s a lot of really cool stuff Kevin Siembieda and I have planned for the book art-wise, including making one version of it manga-sized, as well as a special collector’s full-sized hardcover. More than that I can’t say... really... don’t look at me like that... next question!

N9: Scott Johnson has said that even with talent, becoming a successful artist requires a great deal of work and practice. Do you practice any drawing exercises that have helped you to hone your talent? Do you have any tips or tricks that you can pass on to others?

AO: Scott Johnson? Who’s that? Heh, just kidding, Scott’s a great guy, and he’s absolutely right! If you’re lucky, talent may get your foot in the door, but there’s a big difference from being a professional and being a doorstop. I’ve both seen and heard of quite a few talented artists who weren’t nearly prepared for the work involved when it came to the pressures and commitments of being a professional artist. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun, after all there’s not many jobs where you can get paid to draw dragons and robots, but it is also a lot of work too.
As for exercises, I haven’t done any formal drawing exercises in a long time, but for me, every new picture presents a new challenge and a chance to practice both new and old skills. The key for me is to try to learn a little bit with each new drawing. Hey, I still draw stick figures!
I only have one tip for beginning artists: Draw, draw, draw, and when you can, draw from life whenever possible, you can only get better through practice and observation.

N9: Any tips for young people hoping to become artists? Any suggested college courses or programs/schools?

AO: Gratuitous plug aside, Sheridan College has excellent award winning 3D and 2D animation and illustration programs, which I highly recommend for anyone looking to get into the industry. They’re very competitive programs, but they’re also highly regarded by companies such as Disney, Pixar, Nelvana, Bioware, Bungie Studios, Teletoon, and Dreamworks, just to name a few. Mind you, their digital tools professor is a half-baked hack, but I hear he’s an easy marker.
More locally, I’d look into community colleges for life drawing classes, which is an absolute necessity for any serious artist.

N9: In addition to being a great artist, are you a gamer too? How long have you been playing RPGs?

AO: Oh yeah, huge gamer here! I’ve been playing on and off for just over twenty-two years. Wow, I suddenly feel old. But yeah, some of the earliest books I read were Choose Your Own Adventure type of stuff, so it didn’t take very much to go from that to role-playing games.

N9: Have you been mostly a player or GM?

AO: I’m mostly a Game Master. I guess I was always the guy with the most books and/or knew the rules best, that and although I play a tough game, I don’t intentionally try to kill my PCs. I think my players like that.

N9: Which was your first rpg?

AO: Advanced Fighting Fantasy by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Characters only had three stats and you played with d6s; it was simple, but it was a great introduction to the whole role-playing game genre. They even had books where the games were played solitaire. Ahh, good times.

N9: How did you discover Palladium's games?

AO: I was a HUGE Ninja Turtles fan. When I saw an advertisement for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness Role-Playing Game on the back of a comic book, I leapt at the chance to play. After that, it was Heroes Unlimited and then Rifts. The rest is history.

N9: Do you, or have you ever, played any non-Palladium RPGs?

AO: Aside from Advanced Fighting Fantasy, I’ve also played Battletech, Call of Cthulhu, Warhammer 40K, Alternity, D20 Modern, Star Wars D20/Saga Edition, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition. There’s been a couple others, but their names escape me.

N9: Did you port any of your other gaming experiences over to your Palladium games, or vice-versa?

AO: As a GM, I’ve never run the same campaign twice, so in that respect, no. But, I have ported over a couple of my favourite characters both to and from my Palladium games - not that I’ve actually got to play them, but I have fun doing it, you know, just in case.

N9: Do you have a favorite RPG, Palladium or otherwise? What makes it your favorite?

AO: Back when I used to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Rifts, Palladium’s rules to me were absolute RPG heaven, and had been for many years. Then, Wizards of the Coast came along and took some of my favourite aspects of both rules systems and published Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition, and I was hooked. While there are some design aspects that could still use some tweaking, I feel that mechanics-wise there’s a much better sense of design guidelines and balance in the D20 system, and I’m all about balance and design guidelines.

N9: How often do you get to play nowadays?

AO: Not nearly as often as I used to. These days, I play an afternoon, once or twice a month. No more full day & night gaming events for me.

N9: Do you make it to any local conventions to run or play in games? Any plans to?

AO: Go figure, there aren’t any real role-playing game conventions here in the Toronto area, yet we have conventions for just about everything else. I have tried to make it out to some of the bigger cons such as Origins, and GenCon on occasion, and of course Palladium’s Open House. Usually I’m drawing sketches and meeting/greeting with everybody when I attend, so I don’t get to game all that much.

N9: Tell us about your most memorable Player Character (any system).

AO: My most memorable character is a human female cleric named Vicarra, originally from an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dragonlance campaign. She is also one of the characters that I’ve ported and played in both Palladium Fantasy/Rifts, as a Priest, and later in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 as a Favoured Soul. I’ve always enjoyed support type roles and being a healer certainly fit the bill, not that she has much trouble kicking evil butt either, and still looking good doing it. Despite being a female, personality-wise, she is probably the closest to my own of all my PCs, albeit with a much more innocent outlook on life, and I suppose that’s a big part of why I’ve kept her around all these years.

N9: Is there a specific O.C.C., R.C.C., etc, that you prefer drawing?

AO: Wow, good question! Um... I really don’t know, I’ve never thought about it. With Palladium, I usually go from one character to the next, so I don’t often get the chance to really delve into specific character types too deeply. So, not really, no. If anything, probably dragons, if you count them as an R.C.C.. Other than that, I certainly seem to be getting a bit of a rep drawing characters of the female persuasion. Is that a good thing?

N9: What's your favorite Palladium game setting?

AO: Definitely Rifts! It’s such an open-ended, no holds barred kind of setting. You could literally run any type of adventure or genre in Rifts and it would all work: gothic horror, mystery, cyber-punk, fantasy, dungeon delves, martial arts, military strategy, multi-dimension hopping... you name it.

N9: If you could tackle all of the art for any one Palladium book, what would it be? (if a new game, what kind of game, etc?)

AO: I was really hoping to get to do the art for the Revised Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG back when Palladium was going to be updating the series. Unfortunately, the contract was dropped, and my hopes shattered... I was shell-shocked!
Today, I’m really looking forward to tackling the art anime-style for the new Robotech Shadow Chronicles RPG. I could not pick a better book for me to dive into. Oh wait, did I mention I’m possibly doing all the art for this book? Next question!

N9: Which Palladium game is the most fun for you to work on? Any particular reason?

AO: Rifts. Again, for its sheer diversity. One day I’m drawing mutant D-Bees, the next some gi-normous mech covered in guns. Every picture is a new challenge, both technically and creatively, and I never have to worry about getting bored!

N9: What advice can you offer to someone that wants to have their art published by Palladium Books?

AO: Submit your art to the Rifter!! Do it, do it now!
My first published piece for Palladium was in fact for Rifter #1, and it’s been a great starting point for many of Palladium’s crew of freelance artists and writers. More importantly, learn to take criticism constructively. This industry is not without its critics, and only by learning from one’s mistakes and not taking things personally will one succeed.

N9: The Grackle Tooth you had published in D-Bees of N.A. is one of my all-time favorites, as you know. How do you feel about revisiting other artist's original work, and conversely, how do you feel about other artists variations on things you've done?

AO: I know of a few artists that feel absolutely threatened with the idea of another artist drawing “their” characters. Personally, I’ve always taken it as a huge compliment and learning experience. There was one Palladium book, Heroes Unlimited 2nd Ed GM’s Guide, I think, where a number of various artists took a crack at inking art drawn by Wayne Breaux. As an artist and fan, I thought it was just the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in their books. I would so want to see what other artists would do with my art!
I think the biggest trick, more than anything else, when drawing someone else’s character is trying to capture their personality. If you’ve got the character’s personality showing through then everything else is just icing.

N9: When you aren't working, spending time with family and friends what do you do for fun?

AO: Not working?! You mean when I’m sleeping?
When I do get the chance, I like to get outdoors, walking, jogging, cycling... whatever, as long as I get to see some sun. I also like to read just about anything, comics, novels, game books, art books, Stephen Hawking’s Universe in a Nutshell, HTML for Dummies, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Betty Crocker’s Big Red Cookbook, the latest Time magazine, the back of a shampoo bottle... you name it, I’ll probably read it.

N9: Do you play any board games or video games? If so, what kind do you play? Any favorites?

AO: Ha ha, my other favourite pastimes! Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo - all the Blizzard faire, other video games favourites include the Sims 2, Simcity 4, Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, and Knights of the Old Republic.
Monopoly’s my all-time favourite table-top game, funny thing is, I really couldn’t tell you why. Ooh, we so need a Rifts Monopoly and a Rifts Risk, oh yeah! I also really enjoy chess. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Wizards of the Coast’s Three-Dragon Ante, if you haven’t tried this card game yet you’ve got to check it out!

N9: What kind of music is in your iPod?

AO: No iPod here, although I can play MP3s on my cell-phone. I tend to change my music pretty often. One day I might have some Phil Collins, the next, maybe Blue Man Group. Today I’ve got some Nickleback and Rob Thomas loaded up. Tomorrow I think I’m just going to listen to the radio...

N9: Any favorite comics? Movies?

AO: Comics: I’m not a huge collector, they’ve always been a little pricey for me, especially now, but a few favourites include: the X-Men Reborn series, Batman Hush, the first Aliens vs Predator series, the original TMNT, the original Transformers G1 Issues 1-5, and Dreamwave’s Transformers G1 Ongoing #1 v2 (my art’s in it, he he), and last but not least, Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick!
Movies: Lord of the Rings, Transformers the animated Movie, almost everything by Hayao Miyazaki, throw in some Disney/Pixar flicks, Spider-Man, and Batman Begins and I’m set.

N9: Where do you see yourself professionally in the next ten years?

AO: You never know what the future will bring. I am hoping Sheridan will keep me and I’ll still be teaching, as the position offers me a great mix of a lot things I really enjoy. Freelance-wise, if I’m lucky, I’d like to get into doing more book covers on the side, but ultimately, I’m thinking the teaching thing’s going to be my new home for the next little while. I’d also like to get back into doing more volunteering within my community. As an odd aside, I’ve also been playing around with the possibility of acting. I’ve already gone to a number of auditions and it’s been a lot of fun, but I have no real ambition for it one way or the other. Then again you never know...

N9: Huge Thanks goes out to Apollo for the great interview. Be sure to check out his website, Art of Apollo Okamura.

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